Building Rome in a Day

The billions of photos taken in cities across the world and uploaded to places like Flickr, Photobucket et al might suddenly have a very interesting use. The University of Washington are experimenting with the creation of 3D “point clouds” similar to those created by terrestrial laser scanners, from downloaded images.

By sourcing images and applying the principles of photogrammetry and distributed computing, the results are very impressive. They aren’t going to rival laser scanners just yet, but the animations on the Building Rome in a Day project website are impressive, and show the huge potential of this approach.

Entering the search term Rome on Flickr returns more than two million photographs. This collection represents an increasingly complete photographic record of the city, capturing every popular site, facade, interior, fountain, sculpture, painting, cafe, and so forth. It also offers us an unprecedented opportunity to richly capture, explore and study the three dimensional shape of the city.

This particular project aims to create “sparse point clouds” to give a 3D overview of the layout of a city, and has interesting potential for interacting with and exploring a place virtually. They are running a parallel project investigating dense point clouds which looks promising, but probably won’t see any popular use for a long time due to the massive amount of processing and data storage involved (dense 3D point clouds and meshes are huge datasets).

The University of Washington project is similar to Microsoft’s Photosynth project. But the difference is that with Photosynth, users have to manually create “synths” by uploading photos of a particular place. Photosynth does not allow users to tap into the millions of other images out there, which moves me to my next point.

What about the copyright implications of crowd-sourced photos? Even if just using Creative Commons licensed images, imagine what the “attribution” page would look like if hundreds of thousands of images have been used from potentially tens of thousands of photographers. I’ll be interested to see how they deal with that side of things.

But overall, this is an exciting development. There is huge potential for cultural heritage applications, especially in the areas of survey and interpretation. I will be following this project very closely.

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7 Responses to Building Rome in a Day

  1. Bill Hume 28 September, 2009 at 11:27 am #

    Cool…undoubtedly and no doubt usefull in a global recording sense. It does however remind me of Photosynth in that the point clouds are unobtainable to us mere mortals. I had hoped for a system like ‘synth where I could input photographs and have a point cloud constructed from them. Yes I know ‘synth does that, but there is no mechanism for obtaining the point cloud data. It’s so frustrating.
    It’s a synth of a standing stone I made last year. I love the point cloud, I can see it, but can’t obtain it as a data set. Let’s hope someone at Microsoft sees the real value of Photosynth soon.
    Bill Hume.

  2. patrick 6 November, 2009 at 4:12 pm #

    I am a 3d illustrator who specializes in renderings of events historical in nature.When I read your post with the subject “3d” it natural got my attention. Reading your post regarding “Building Rome in a day” I couldn’t help but think of the Google Earth project “Ancient Rome in 3d” and thought that may be something you would be interested in. I like your blog, some of the information I find quite interesting.

  3. Bill Hume 7 March, 2010 at 11:58 pm #

    There is now a free prog. which allows the simple extraction of point cloud data from Photosynth.

    Works an absolute treat. Only problem I have now is that I’m unable to get Meshlab to convert the point cloud to a mesh. Having never worked with 3D (in a computing sense), I forsee a steep and painful learning curve ahead.
    Worth trying it out. Just paste the url of my synth of the standing stone (above), into the appropriate box and hit go…….it really is that simple.
    Point cloud may be viewed in meshlab……I was surprised how much of the field boundaries were there, you need to zoom in on the stone itself.
    Hope this of interest to you,
    Bill Hume.

    • Tom Goskar 8 March, 2010 at 1:59 pm #

      Thanks for the update, Bill. I will certainly try it out – the ‘old’ way of intercepting the data and converting the binary file was a lot of hassle.

      Unfortunately the examples I tried (mainly Stonehenge related) had terrible point clouds, so at least trying different ones will now be less painful (especially if the resultant point cloud is poor too!).



  4. Bill Hume 19 March, 2010 at 10:33 pm #

    Microsoft have updated Photosynth, so “old” point cloud exporter won’t work. Luckily version 1.0.2 does and is available from above link.
    Bill H.

  5. Bill Hume 12 May, 2010 at 9:51 pm #

    I’ve been looking for an alternative to the Photosynth/extract point cloud/convert in Blender workstream, primarily because it’s slow, complicated and I’m useless with Blender. There is, however, a very good program from AgiSoft in Russia, called Photoscan. They’ve just released a beta for testing. It’s available as a trial (free, but can’t output or save results).

    First results seem promising. It does the whole process in one program and seems to require fewer photographs than Photosynth.

    Tom, if you took photographs of Knowlton Church and Henge while laser scanning it, it would be interesting to process them with this and compare the results.
    Bill H.


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    […] 31, 2009 by afarensis, FCD Building Rome in a Day from the University of Washington (Hat Tip to Past Thinking). The University of Washington describes the project this away: Entering the search term Rome on […]